‘Six hours in the car and zero runs on the mountain’: Delays, overcrowding keep Seattle skiers off local slopes

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Heavy snowfall should have meant a weekend of fresh powder at local ski areas for skiers and snowboarders. Instead, many were turned away due to overcrowding. As thousands of skiers headed to the passes Saturday and Sunday, resorts struggled to meet demand. Parking lots and shuttle buses filled up, resort communications failed to reach travelers in areas with spotty cell service, traffic backups stretched for miles, and many faced the frustrating experience of reaching ski areas like Crystal Mountain only to be diverted elsewhere.

In response to overcrowding over the last two weekends, when parking lots filled up every day, Crystal Mountain has already changed its ticket sales policy.

“We’re taking some pretty drastic measures … in a nutshell, we are going to stop selling day tickets at the resort at our ticket window” on weekends and holidays, Tiana Anderson, a spokesperson for Crystal Mountain, said Monday.

Instead of selling tickets in person, the resort will release a limited number of day-use tickets for advance purchase online. When they’re gone, they’re gone. The new policy will begin this weekend and may be reassessed starting in February. Ikon season passes will be honored as usual.

Anderson said that a number of factors have contributed to the overcrowding — among them a late start to the ski season and highway closures that limited access to other ski areas. “We’re feeling very loved — and too loved,” she said, adding that she hopes the change shows that “this is not the experience we want people to have.”

The closure of Highway 2 on Sunday afternoon added insult to injury for stranded skiers, but the trouble started early. A parking alert posted to Crystal Mountain’s Facebook page at 7:49 a.m. Sunday warned skiers that “If you’re not already past Enumclaw, you will not have parking.” As an alternative, skiers were encouraged to catch one of the free shuttle buses Crystal operates between Enumclaw and the mountain. But by 9:45 a.m., all of the shuttles were full, too. With no parking available, skiers were encouraged to try again at 2 p.m. for night skiing: “we’re open until 8 p.m. tonight.”

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In a statement posted to the ski area’s website in response to Saturday’s crowding, Crystal’s President and COO Frank DeBerry acknowledged the parking challenges over the weekend and apologized for impacts on visitors.

“Despite planning several additional measures to communicate and accommodate more skiers and riders, a total park-out still occurred by 9:00 AM, and traffic was backed up for miles early in the morning,” wrote DeBerry. “This proves we still have more work to do and I am committed to finding solutions to service and infrastructure problems to alleviate these constraints, particularly with parking.”

The additional measures DeBerry refers to include using a mobile messaging system in Enumclaw to announce “park-outs,” the resort’s involvement of the Washington State Patrol in communications and managing traffic, and adding five buses to the current fleet in Enumclaw that provides free transportation to the mountain when parking lots are full.

For visitors who paid in advance on Saturday, Jan. 11, but were turned away from the ski area, DeBerry said Crystal will honor unredeemed vouchers “any time over the rest of the season.”

Lulu Teeter of Seattle was among those affected. She paid in advance for her 5-year-old son to have his first ski lesson at Crystal on Saturday. It never happened.

Teeter’s husband and son left Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood with friends at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. They hit gridlock in Enumclaw, said Teeter, and though “Crystal did tweet out that lots were filling … there’s no signage on the road (and bad reception there anyways) so they just kept going.”

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About 6 miles from Crystal Mountain Boulevard near the entrance to the mountain, the group saw “all the cars turning around.” “[I]t was just a bummer that they couldn’t even reach the resort to drop off the kids,” she said.

The family had paid roughly $600 in advance for the ski lesson. Teeter said that the resort was “working on a solution” to honor their payment, but didn’t know exactly what form it would take yet.

Some speculated that the overcrowding at Crystal might be connected to the ski area’s 2018 sale to the Alterra Mountain Co., which added Crystal to a network of ski areas that are accessed through the Ikon Pass. The Ikon Pass has previously been blamed for overcrowding problems at other ski areas.

“I’ve been going to Crystal Mountain for the last four years and have never seen crowds anywhere close to what I’ve seen so far this season,” said Melanie Kneisel, who said she tried to go to the ski area from Seattle three times over the past two weekends, but only made it onto the slopes once. She noted that this is the first year Crystal has participated in the Ikon Pass program, and that it has caused similar headaches elsewhere. “I find it hard to believe the similar and sudden crowding problems at Ikon Pass resorts is simply a coincidence,” she said.

Crystal’s DeBerry addressed this perception in his letter to customers, but blamed the crowding on pristine ski conditions. “There is much talk about the Ikon Pass,” he said. “Yes, we’ve seen robust pass sales, but most of our Ikon Pass holders are primarily still Western WA skiers and riders …  once on the mountain, our skiers and riders have been able to enjoy the classic Crystal experience … but I know that doesn’t help those who couldn’t join in on the fun.”

Unfortunately, things weren’t any better at Stevens Pass, which the Washington State Department of Transportation closed Sunday afternoon due to downed power lines and trees, but not before crowds closed in on the ski area.

“We do constantly encourage our guests to carpool, and to check the conditions before they come out, making sure they are at the resort early, particularly after a big snowfall,” said Vail Resorts spokeswoman Jennifer Smith, who suggested that visitors follow @StevensUpdates on Twitter for news on parking availability. “We have nine lots, with 3,200 spaces total — including our satellite lots at Yodelin and the Stevens Pass Nordic Centre — but when we have had 85 inches of snow in a week, demand is extraordinarily high for those first tracks, and the morning crowd does hit the resort before 9 am.”

Andrew Graff had a frustrating experience that day when he approached the pass from Seattle, arriving at the mountain’s first lot around 10 a.m., where two workers waved him along to the next lots. Graff followed signage saying the main lots were closed but that the Alpine lot was open.

“By the time we made our way down to the Alpine lot, there were workers in front of the lot, turning cars away because the lots were full as well,” he said. “They told us to head in to Leavenworth and come back around 3 p.m.”

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It was a chaotic scene on the road. “The entire time on the pass, there were cars spinning out. We passed two stuck semi-trucks,” he said. “Since the parking lots were full, some people started parking on the shoulders of U.S. 2 in both directions and walking to get to the lifts.”

Graff turned around when he realized there wouldn’t be enough space in Leavenworth to accommodate the spike in eastbound traffic. He saw more people being turned away on the way back, then a patrol car at mile marker 57 shutting the route down to all eastbound traffic. With the pass closed, Graff returned to Seattle.

“It was a total of six hours in the car and zero runs on the mountain. Sad day,” he said.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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